What Makes An Effective Team?

Man painting mural of football team

Where are the most common places teams are talked about? Work and sport. And what is the common denominator that connects the two? Competition. We believe that one of the most effective ways to compete is through effective teamwork.

Team sports are all about collective endeavour, the English Rugby World Cup winners and Liverpool football club are two obvious examples. Already things are being written about the difference between the championship winning Chelsea and the previous team. It’s not about the money, as much was available last year as this, but the team ethos Jose Murinho has instilled in the team.

Even in ‘solo’ sports, teams are critical. Paula Radcliffe working with her husband and specialist advisors, Ellen McArthur whole challenge was branded Team Ellen, golfers don’t move (swing) without consulting their coach. And in business its no different, ‘the management team’ is on of the most common phrases when writing about company performance (or the lack of it). And functional teams are constantly being referred to, the sales team, the finance team, the call centre team. Boards of directors are more likely to be referred to as the senior or leadership team as the board.

What makes a great team? There are seven key ingredients to create a high performing team recipe:

Shared Values
One of the catalysts for effective team behaviour is trust. Trust between team members comes from believing in the same things (only the things relevant to the team performing so you don’t have all support the same football team, unless you’re in one!), that means for instance, if the team requires that for a period you all have to put in long hours to get a project completed, you all believe that the value of meeting those deadlines and obligations is non-negotiable. Teams with a strong sense of shared values use their behaviour to set standards. See Clive Woodward’s black book for more on this, or Jim Collins book and values driven organisations; Built To Last.

Meaningful/Common Purpose
This seems obvious but many teams do not have it. They are a collection of individuals who say they are trying to do the same thing. We see many sales teams who don’t have any overarching team target or team incentive scheme but are expected to share best practice. The common purpose should also be more than a set of numbers; it should connect to the organisation’s vision and the strategy for delivering it. Every sports team common purpose is to win (the numbers), it’s the ones that have a common purpose that includes the way they are going to win that more often succeed, especially if you are looking for repeatable success.

Mutual/Individual Accountability
People like to know what is expected of them. In teams it’s critical to get the balance right between what the person is expected to do on their own and what that are expected to do for each other. This should never be reduced to a binary decision of one or the other. Sometimes there has to be trade-offs, but they should be rare, individual and team accountabilities must be aligned otherwise the team will pull against itself. Accountability, or ownership as it’s sometimes called, needs to be one of any team’s shared values. A great by-product of being comfortable with high levels of accountability is the desire to offer team leadership.

Clear Performance Goals
Teams (as distinct from individual members) have to know when they are succeeding or failing. There has to be up-side benefit and down-side risk attached to team performance. This clarity allows a consequences model to be established. One of the fastest ways to destroy team morale is to not recognise success and not deal with failure. If the team’s success/failure can be traced to one individual then it should be dealt with accordingly. When a team is failing collectively it can be more complicated. The first test should be has the team demonstrated steps to resolve the problem? Then has the manager of the team taken steps to resolve the problem? Then is the manager of the team the problem?

Complementary Skills
There is no such thing as a perfect individual, but there is such thing as a perfect team. This is what makes team building so fascinating. Creating the perfect team requires assembling a set of differing capabilities that add value to each other (synergy), where the sum is greater than the parts. A lot of work has been done to identify the different roles people can play in teams, notably by Meridth Belbin, who has published several books on the subject and whose team framework is probably recognised as the most useful work on the subject. A team made up of the same kinds of people (we’re not talking technical capability here, obviously a sales team will need to contain salespeople, a finance team, finance people etc.) will see problems, challenges and opportunities in the same way. It will also work in the same way in solving them. Generally (but not exclusively) salespeople are really good at suggesting new ideas, and notoriously bad at implementing/completing them. A salesperson who can complete things, showing real attention to detail would be a valuable team member to have!

Well Defined Working Approach
How teams organise should not be left to chance. For instance, a simple principle about what are rules and guidelines can be enormously helpful. Take meeting attendance, is it a rule that everybody should be there, except for enforced absence? Or it is a guideline, if you can avoid holidays fine, if not also fine? These simple things can make the world of difference to a team’s effectiveness. Getting work in on time, is that a rule or a guideline? Also expectations should be clearly set about how much (if any) additional to the core job teamwork is required? And if team tasks are required, how are they distributed? We often see in change processes that the work is done by a few team members, others being ‘too busy’ to contribute.

Manageable/Small Numbers
An obvious point, but the larger the numbers the more productivity, communication and decision making suffer. Try to keep the team in single figures and the closer to 5/6 the better. Having said all that, if all the elements are in place as previously outlined, then larger numbers can work. Equally the opposite is true, without these ingredients even a team of two will struggle to achieve anything!